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High Sensitivity: My Last Illuminating Puzzle Piece

“Highly sensitive people are too often perceived as weaklings or damaged goods. To feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness, it is the trademark of the truly alive and compassionate. It is not the empath who is broken, it is society that has become dysfunctional and emotionally disabled. There is no shame in expressing your authentic feelings. Those who are at times described as being a ‘hot mess’ or having ‘too many issues’ are the very fabric of what keeps the dream alive for a more caring, humane world. Never be ashamed to let your tears shine a light in this world.”

― Anthon St. Maarten, Divine Living: The Essential Guide To Your True Destiny

Seventh Jigsaw Tile

During my first 49 years on Earth, I acquired six jigsaw puzzle pieces that identified me. They formed my persona and were labeled ‘Alcoholic,’ ‘Child Abuse Survivor,’ ‘Nicotine Addict,’ ‘Over-Achiever,’ ‘Workaholic,’ and ‘Anxiety-Prone Person.’ Those labels explained past victimizations, addictive, and dysfunctional behavior, but I felt behaviorally incomplete. The 6-piece jigsaw picture was missing other behaviors I exhibited but didn’t understand and couldn’t attach a label to.

With the publication of psychologist Elaine Aron’s 1997 book titled The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, I became aware of the trait known as ‘high sensitivity.’ According to Aron, a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) displays increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to external and internal stimuli—pain, hunger, light, and noise—and a complex inner life.1

When I read about it, I finally understood my confusing introverted-like characteristics, given that I’m an extrovert who derives energy outside of myself. Smiling broadly with this newfound knowledge, I figuratively pushed the last irregularly shaped puzzle piece, ‘HSP,’ into place. It fit perfectly.

What Is High Sensitivity?

High sensitivity is a personality trait found in approximately 20% of the population. People with this trait experience an increased sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. While others describe some HSPs as “too sensitive,” it is a trait that has both strengths and challenges. It also exhibits increased responsiveness to both positive and negative stimuli.

The high sensitivity trait is innate—determined and passed on by three genes, some, or all of which an HSP may possess. Genes account for 47% of high sensitivity, while environment and life experiences account for 53%, mostly in early childhood.

Gene Sets That Determine High Sensitivity

Sensitivity is a continuum that runs from low on one end to high on the other. Where you fall on that continuum is initially determined by the three sets of genes affecting your brain or nervous system. The gene sets impacting high sensitivity are the following:2

  • The Sensitive Gene (Serotonin Transporter): Serotonin is a chemical in the body that stabilizes mood. Serotonin Transporter is a chemical that helps move serotonin, the mood stabilizer, out of the brain.
    • If you have a variation of Serotonin Transporter, you have lower Serotonin levels and are most likely an HSP. This gene variant makes you sensitive to your surroundings.
    • If the Serotonin Transporter is combined with an unhealthy childhood environment, you have a higher risk of depression and other disorders throughout life.
    • If the Serotonin Transporter is combined with a safe, supportive environment, you will experience less sensitivity to your surroundings. The supportive environment counterbalances the lower Serotonin levels.
  • The Dopamine Genes: A connection between high sensitivity and a set of 10 gene variants related to Dopamine is not entirely understood. Dopamine is the brain’s reward chemical.
    • Someone with high sensitivity feels less rewarded by external stimuli and is uninterested in stimulating environments, such as parties.
  • The Emotional Vividness Gene: This gene is related to norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that helps with the body’s stress response. One norepinephrine variant increases emotional reactions to stimuli in HSPs who have it. Most HSPs know they have more robust emotional reactions to stimuli than non-HSPs.

Characteristics of HSPs

People who are born with the HSP trait experience benefits as well as challenges. Some benefits can turn into challenges if the behavior becomes more extreme. Let’s examine these characteristics.3

  • Experience ups and downs more deeply: Experience excitement or joyful feelings more intensely than non-HSPs.
    • Challenge: May feel emotional pain more intensely than non-HSPs.
  • Extremely empathetic: Keen ability to sense the feelings and needs of others. Deep compassion and understanding for the struggles that other people face. A master at communication, conflict resolution, and inspiring others to action.
    • Challenge: May slip into people pleasing and putting others’ needs first.
  • Extremely perceptive: Highly attuned to others’ likes, dislikes, and preferences. Tendency to observe things that others might miss. Aware and observant.
    • Challenge: Meticulousness may turn into perfectionism.
  • Prone to taking situations personally: Deeply affected by the world around them.
    • Challenge: May feel flawed for being so sensitive.
  • Imaginative: Vibrant inner life. Incredibly original. Creative thinker. Extremely self-aware.
    • Challenge: May overthink and over-analyze day-to-day experiences.
  • Reflective when processing information: Pick up on nuances. Skilled at making connections and integrating complex information.
  • Easily overwhelmed by pressure: Multiple deadlines and long to-do lists. A feeling of too much to do in too little time.
  • Overstimulation: May get overstimulated and need to decompress when interactions get too intense, complex, chaotic, or novel for a long time.
  • Prone to strong reactions to negative feedback: React more strongly to criticism than non-HSPs.
  • Prone to struggling with decision-making: Fear choosing the wrong option.
  • Exude kindness: Courteous and honest.
  • Committed and dedicated: Valued as team members.
  • Prone to workspace preferences: Thrive in a well-lit, quiet, or uncluttered workspace.
  • Driven by intrinsic factors: Find enjoyment in the work rather than extrinsic factors, such as money or prestige.

My Unreconcilable HSP Characteristics

As an HSP, I possessed most, but not all, of the preceding characteristics. In particular, I recognized the characteristics listed below as behaviors I exhibited, but I did not understand how these seemingly introverted behaviors meshed with my extroverted personality.

  • Social Sprinter: If I’m attending a party or other social gathering, I’m sociable for several hours, after which I need to leave because I have become socially saturated. Extroverts who are non-HSPs have difficulty understanding this because they don’t react the same way. For example, I cannot spend all day with my own or my husband’s family. It’s too much together time and exhausting to be “on” that long. My chitchat quotient is limited. I enjoy socializing for 2-3 hours, but after that, my energy is depleted.
  • Alone Time: Although I’ve lived with my husband for 45 years, I need and enjoy a considerable amount of alone time daily, whether taking care of household business at my desk, working on a writing or research project, reviewing or preparing social media, reading books and articles, or watching TV.
  • Overstimulation: If I’m in a group situation for too long or multiple times a day, I feel drained and need to recharge by spending time alone.

Reconciling Introverted HSP Characteristics with Extroversion

The fundamental definition of introversion versus extroversion relates to an individual’s energy source. By definition, my extroverted energy comes from stimuli outside of myself. For example, I receive energy by talking to someone in person or over the phone or exercising to music in a group setting. I’ve known about my extroversion for years. But at the same time, I was acutely aware of my social sprinting, need for alone time, and tendency to overstimulate. The three behaviors seemed representative of introversion rather than extroversion. How could I be both introverted and extroverted at the same time?

The answer presented itself when I learned about high sensitivity and identified my HSP characteristics. Weaving my high-sensitivity threads into the fabric of extroversion, I finally understood myself. The picture was complete. I was not such a strange aberration after all!

HSP Retreat with Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Around 2000, Dr. Elaine Aron, the psychologist who introduced the concept of high sensitivity to the world and an HSP herself, held a retreat for HSPs in Marin County, California. I attended. It was a gathering of about 50 HSPs. We sat in a meeting room for approximately half a day, listened to HSP-related information, participated in role-playing, and asked Aron questions about our trait. As a newly aware HSP, meeting and talking to mirror images of myself was fascinating. Numerous subsequent retreats were held in California and elsewhere in the US. Word about the trait spread. Today, interest in high sensitivity continues to be strong.

Final Thoughts

Survivors, if you are an HSP, learn more about your trait and embrace it! Take the High Sensitivity Self-test4 on Dr. Aron’s website and receive your score free. You have gifts that others don’t have. Use them to your advantage!

References

1. “Highly Sensitive Person.” Psychology Today. Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/highly-sensitive-person.

2. Solo, Andre. “These 3 Sets of Genes May Make You a Highly Sensitive Person.” Sensitive Refuge, 26, November 2022. https://highlysensitiverefuge.com/highly-sensitive-person-gene/.

3. Wilding, LMSW, Melody. “14 Traits of Highly Sensitive People.” Psychology Today, 28, June 2021. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/trust-yourself/202106/14-traits-of-highly-sensitive-people.

4. Aron, Ph.D., Elaine. The Highly Sensitive Person, High Sensitivity Self-test. https://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/.

Websites

Aron, Ph.D., Elaine. The Highly Sensitive Person, https://hsperson.com.

Sólo, Andre and Granneman, Jenn. Sensitive Refuge, https://highlysensitiverefuge.com/.

Additional Reading

Aron, Ph.D., Elaine. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, Harmony Books, 1997. amazon.com.

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